[A version of this content was originally presented at a Roots of Justice workshop at the Wild Goose Festival, June 2014.]
It is very important for this analysis not to get disconnected from its roots in the lives of women of color, particularly queer women of color.
Intersectional analysis grew out of the experiences and voices of women of color who faced both racist and sexist oppression, and the economic disempowerment resulting from those oppressions.
Maya Angelou spoke of this in her 1969 autobiographical volume I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” (266)
The multipliers of oppression were present even in liberation movements. In antiracist work, the particular experiences of women were discounted or ignored. In feminist work, the particular experiences of women of color were discounted or ignored. Queer women of color experienced further lines of oppression – homophobia and heterosexism – interlocking with racist and sexist oppression.
The Combahee River Collective, a group of Black lesbian feminists forming and working in the late 1970s in Boston, were early articulators of the experience of multiple oppressions interlocking in the lives of women of color. They took their name from the guerrilla action conceptualized and led by Harriet Tubman in June 2, 1863, in the Port Royal region of South Carolina. This action freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman. (Bridge 210)
From “A Black Feminist Statement: Combahee River Collective,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981):
“The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of an integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these impressions creates the conditions of our lives.” (210)
1. The Genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism. A combined antiracist and antisexist position drew us together initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to hetero-sexism and economic oppression under capitalism. (212)
2. What We Believe. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. (212)
We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously…. We are dealing with the implications of race and class as well as sex. (213)
3. Problems in Organizing Black Feminists. The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address the whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power the groups in possession of one of these types of privilege have. (214)
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” (215)
Fast forward to 1989 and 1990. Legal scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw articulated how single-axis analyses mean the lived experience and oppression of women of color were not addressed. The point was not just visibility and understanding, but to bring unjust realities to light in order to transform them, particularly the social structures that produce and entrench power for some and marginalization for others.
In the years since, intersectionality has been deployed in many fields for many purposes, including the diversity/multicultural industrial complex, where what Sirma Bilge calls “ornamental intersectionality” (Bilge 2011) is sometimes being used to neutralize the radical politics of intersectionality, to instead deploy it as part of organizational PR and branding, without actually addressing the structures that reproduce injustice.